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Title: Heroes for Ghosts
Author: [info]gaelicspirit
Genre: GEN
Characters: Dean, Sam
Rating: PG-13 for language and themes
Spoilers: This story is set in Season 1 after 1.16, Shadow
Summary: In an attempt to save a disillusioned hunter from himself, Dean and Sam are caught in a spell that sends them to 1870 Texas. Surviving the old west is hard enough. Escaping it could prove to be impossible.
Disclaimer: They're not mine. More's the pity.

A/N: If you've read my stories before, you know that I try very hard to make the pain mean something and to offer comfort (for us and for the characters). Not that writing pain for the sake of pain is bad or wrong...just that there always seems to be a lot of it in my stories and I wanted to reassure you that I've thought it through. *smile* So, with that, I promise that while there's more pain to come—for both brothers—there's a plan behind it. Because these guys are our heroes, and I'd never want to take that away from us.

 

"Our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change."

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Sulfur Springs, Texas 1870

He should have left the saloon the very moment Ivers drew on the drunken man.

He used to be sharper, savvier, his senses tuned to the most minute shift in his environment. He used to be a formidable opponent.

A hunter. A soldier. A father. A friend.

There used to be meaning behind his actions. Now all he had was the mission. And he couldn't even keep a grip on that from one minute to the next. He'd forgotten why he was sitting in a hard-backed, wooden chair across from a quiet man with eyes that seemed to see everything at once. He'd even forgotten the cigarette in his hand until it burned down to ash, scoring the skin of his fingers.

But then he saw the kid. Another man's son. He watched as the kid advanced on Ivers and he thought about calling out, thought about warning him, thought about grabbing him up as he would have done with Sean and hauling him out of there, away from this devil of a man.

Thought about it all, yet didn't move.

He simply watched it happen; listened as Ivers called Dean a hunter, listened as he threatened, listened as he exposed his secret: the search for the gate.

And then he remembered. He remembered the years of searching, the tiny clue that had given him hope, the discovery of an abandoned Hell's Gate, a thwarted attempted by a demon, a defeat only made possible because of one weapon.

The weapon he had to find.

Jake stood when the man across from him at the table rose and pulled a cannon of a gun from a holster at his hip. Jake melted into the shadows as the man pressed the barrel of the gun against Ivers' ear. He stopped breathing as the man threatened Ivers, obviously unclear as to who held the advantage here.

Unaware that he was dealing with a devil.

Jake watched as Ivers held Dean by the throat, bent backwards over the bar, the other man holding the gun on Ivers, and waited for the bloodbath.

"You seem to have me at a disadvantage, friend," Ivers said.

Jake nearly fell over with surprise.

"I'm not your friend. Let him go," the man in black returned, his voice steady, his arm unwavering with the weight of his gun.

To Jake's amazement, Ivers released Dean, the young hunter frantically gripping the edge of the bar to keep from falling to the floor. Ivers turned slowly, taking a step toward the gunslinger, allowing the barrel of the other man's gun to press into his scarred cheek.

"You have no idea who you're dealing with," Ivers informed the gunman, his voice sucking the heat from the room.

Jake watched as the man who'd originally stepped into this ruckus hurried to Dean's side, catching the kid as his legs buckled and holding him up with one arm slung around his shoulders. The paid kept their eyes pinned to the exchange taking place in the center of the room.

"I run this town, friend. These people? Belong to me!"

The gunman didn't lower his weapon or change facial expression. "You can't tell but right now, deep down, I'm petrified," he replied. "And I already told you…I'm not your friend."

Jake watched, his body tense, as Ivers studied the man. He knew without question that if Ivers wanted to, he could kill this man with just his will. He could reach into the man's chest with his mind and rip his heart free. He could twist him up inside until he bled out.

But he did none of those things.

"I don't really care about you," Ivers informed the man.

"I'll try to live with that," the man replied.

Ivers turned and looked back at Dean and the man holding him up. "I already warned you once, Zeke. You started by protecting the priest. Now you've taken a hunter under your wing. The wrath you bring upon this town is your own doing."

"And that's what makes me special," Zeke replied, his face blank.

Dean grinned, straightening slightly away from Zeke. Jake swallowed, his fear increasing. Ivers turned, his dark gaze ignoring the gun still pointed at his head and taking in the various men in the saloon who officially worked for him.

"Let's go," he ordered, his voice a deepened rumble.

He moved past the revolver, past Jake, and out through the saloon doors. The man in black thumbed the hammer of his gun forward and lowered the weapon as at least ten men followed Ivers out of the saloon. Jake held still, watching Dean.

Ivers knew the kid was a hunter. He saw it. He hadn't encountered many demons in his career, but those he'd had never once pegged him as a hunter. He wasn't sure where to put that realization.

"You okay?" Zeke turned to Dean, releasing him slowly.

Dean nodded, a hand on the bar, steadying himself, his eyes on the man in black. "You're Larabee, right?"

The man holstered his weapon, then extended a hand. "Chris Larabee."

Dean grasped the hand. "Appreciate the help, man."

Larabee looked at Zeke. "Who was that guy?" he asked, tipping his head in the direction of the saloon doors.

A woman in a red skirt and black corset moved behind the bar and began setting out shot glasses; Jake watched as she nodded to a small man with a gray beard that hung to the middle of his chest. In moments, off-key piano music trickled through the thinned-out crowd and people returned to their business.

Jake was forced to move from his hiding place to another table in order to hear the words from the men at the bar.

"…find my brother," Dean was saying.

"He's okay," Zeke assured him. "I sent him in the opposite direction of Ivers' place to bury your friend."

"If he's a bounty hunter, too, he'll know how to stay low," Larabee commented, reaching for the shot glass the woman set in front of him.

Jake saw the look that crossed Dean's face. His own lips twitched in what he almost recognized as a conspirators smile, though the other men had no idea he stood nearby. The gunfighter had heard hunter and assumed Dean was after a bounty. The veil of secrets that cloaked their lives stretched back through time, it seemed.

"Who is this priest Ivers was talking about?" Larabee asked, swallowing the whiskey and tugging his lips back in a suppressed hiss.

"Ramirez," Zeke sighed, rubbing his face.

"Pablo Ramirez?"

Dean turned to look at the gunfighter, surprise on his face. "You know him?"

Larabee nodded. "Yeah, I know him. Just passed him on my way here."

"Where was he? Do you know where he was going?" Zeke's voice was tight.

Larabee frowned. "Far as I know, he was heading to his Mission. Said something about…I don't know…holding back the darkness." The man shrugged. "Pablo talks in riddles. I didn't think much of it."

"He's coming back," Dean said to Zeke, and there was a curious mixture of worry and relief on his face.

Zeke nodded. "And we have to warn him."

A door behind the bar banged and Jake heard the slap-thunk of swiftly approaching foot-falls.

"Dean!"

The sound of that young voice sent Jake's memory spinning. Back to the diner and the taste of blood in his coffee. Back to the moment the brothers had walked through the door. Back to the realization that one of his best friends—a man he'd considered a brother—had betrayed him. Had called in reinforcements. Had summoned another man's sons for help.

Sean is dead…Sean is dead because of me and John Winchester's sons are alive…they're alive and they're here…they're here with me and Sean is dead….

The sickening realization that the person running through the back of the saloon to join the group at the bar was Dean's brother slammed through Jake in the space of a heartbeat. The spell hadn't only joined Dean to him on this journey—Sam was here as well.

And if Sam was here….

He staggered, head swimming, and bounced against one of the tables. The unexpected sound brought several pairs of eyes his way, the most disconcerting belonging to Sam and Dean Winchester.

"Jake?" Dean breathed, moving stiffly away from the bar.

Jake backed up. "Just stay there."

"Jake—wait!" Sam called, hurrying past his brother, closing the gap between them.

Confusion surged to the surface of Jake's heart. Here they were. Both of them. John Winchester's sons had come back in time with him. So where were Leo and Max? Why was he alone? What had he done to them, to his friends, to his brothers?

What have I done…?

"Just…just STAY BACK!" Jake shouted, panic rising tight and hard in his chest. What if Leo and Max were out there…searching for him…seeking to put an end to this….

No, no, no…they can't stop me…they can't touch me…they can't get me now…not now…not until I have it!

"Jake, please!" Sam implored, pulling up short as Jake's back banged against the swinging doors. "We need your help."

"I can't help you," Jake shook his head rapidly. "I can't help you now."

"You're our only shot, man!" Dean came up beside Sam, his eyes oddly bright, his pale face grim. "We need you."

Jake backed through the doors. "Not until I have it," he said, then turned, running into the dark of the rutted street to find the horse he'd ridden to town. "I can't go until I have it!"

He had to get back to Ivers' place. He had to find it.

Because it wouldn't take those two long to find him again.

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Sam was amazed at how quickly the dark swallowed the escaping figure of the man. He stood in the doorway, ready to give chase, but the unfamiliar sounds of the night masked any noise of horse's hooves and he could no longer see Jake.

"Wait, Sam." Dean's hand was on his arm, drawing him back into the saloon, the doors swinging slowly shut behind him.

Sam looked over at his brother, frowning at the way Dean seemed to tilt to his left as if unconsciously protecting his wounded side. Dean looked back at him, shaking his head wearily.

"Just wait," Dean said softly. "We're not ready."

Sam could feel the heat of his brother's skin through the contact on his arm. He nodded, turning with Dean to face the men waiting behind them.

"It?" Zeke called through the din of music and voices. "What the hell is it?"

"We don't know," Sam replied, heading back to the bar where Stella, Zeke, and the man named Larabee waited. "It's what brought him—" he stopped looking at the two who weren't in on the back story, "—uh, to this town."

"You need his help?" Larabee asked.

Sam frowned at the gunslinger, confused.

"Uh, Sam, this is Chris," Dean said. "He…basically just saved my life." Dean reached up and rubbed at his neck, his fingers tripping over the small, healing cut near his collarbone.

Sam didn't need to know the details; he could tell Dean was weakening. And there was something swimming in his brother's eyes that tripped his pulse, digging fingers of fear into his heart.

He held out a hand, shaking the gunfighter's in gratitude. "Thanks, man."

Larabee nodded. "Never did like to see the bad guys win." He glanced down. "I've seen too much of that in my life."

The group was quiet for a moment. Then Larabee bounced a finger on the bar. "I've gotta be going. On my way to meet a friend."

"Thanks again," Dean said, offering the man a genuine smile.

"If you need Pablo," Larabee said, adjusting his hat, "pretty sure you'll find him at the Mission by morning." He tipped a finger to his brim, then turned and exited the saloon.

"Pablo?" Sam asked, looking from Dean to Zeke.

"Ramirez," Dean informed him.

"He's coming back?" Sam felt a bubble of hope rise inside of him.

"Yeah, and one of Ivers' men heard that," Zeke replied, implications heavy in his tone. "We gotta do something."

"We gotta do some reconnaissance is what we gotta do," Dean growled. "Then get Jake and—" he glanced quickly at Stella, who was hanging on every word. "Get him to…show us the way home."

"You boys don't know how to get home?" Stella asked, her frown drawing character lines around her eyes.

"In a manner of speaking," Sam replied softly.

"You took care of Leo?" Dean asked his brother.

Sam nodded, the glowing orange and blue of the dying light of the pyre licking the edges of his memory. "Bird is unhitching the wagon now."

Dean looked at Zeke. "Tell us how to get to Ivers' ranch."

"You?" Zeke frowned, his eyes instinctively going to Dean's wounded side.

"Yes," Dean replied, his voice hard.

"Dean," Zeke shook his head. "You need to…rest up. I'll go with Sam and—"

"No!" There was a brittle edge of desperation on the tail-end of Dean's voice. Sam felt his body pull in tight as Dean turned to him. "I am not gonna let you head off to this monster's house alone—even if the doc comes with you. This is my fight, too, and we may not get another chance to get Jake to get us back home." Sam watched as Dean's right arm wrapped around his middle, his hand protecting his wounded side. "I'm not an idiot; I know I don't have much of a chance unless we find Jake or get to Ramirez." He paused to take a shaky breath. "But you're not going without me."

Sam simply nodded, having given up the idea of arguing with him before he'd even started talking. There was something wrong with Dean, other than the obvious. His eyes were too bright, his skin too hot. Sam knew that Zeke's ministrations had only staved off the inevitable. But there was something…shimmering around his brother. A need, a drive that was scaring him.

"Okay then," he replied. "I guess we need…a gun and some horses."

"I got a gun," Dean said softly, leaning against the bar.

"I don't," Sam pointed out.

"Thought you were better with a knife," Zeke said.

Sam frowned. "Who told you that?"

"Don't worry about it," Dean interrupted. "I was just…making conversation with Ivers."

"Making conversation with…," Sam shook his head. "You're impossible, you know that?"

"So I've been told," Dean said. He looked at Zeke. "You point us in the right direction. All we need to do is get a lay of the land—get an idea of where Jake could be, what we might be up against. We'll come back and get you."

Zeke thunked his fingers against the edge of the bar. "Hell, no. You're not leaving me out of this. I gotta see how it all plays out. Plus," he tucked his chin, trying unsuccessfully to catch Dean's eyes, "at the rate you're going, you might need a former doctor along for the ride."

Dean looked at Sam and something heavy rolled across his expression. Something that said it's too risky, it's too much.

Sam licked his lips then looked at Zeke. "Maybe we should do recon on our own, Zeke. Dean's right; we'll come back and get you."

Zeke's normally placid eyes shifted rapidly, turning hard. He gripped Sam's bicep and shoved him off to the side of the saloon, tucked into the shadows, away from Stella's eyes and anyone else who might be listening. Sam stumbled along, blinking in surprise, and caught himself with the flat of his hand on the far wall before Zeke could shove him against it.

Dean was right behind them, his face colorless with fury.

"Dude!" Dean bit out, his tone so clipped it cut the air. "What the hell?"

"You listen, kid," Zeke all-but growled at Sam, his voice low, his eyes dark. "I have gone along with every one of your claims. I've trusted you even when what you said was eight shades of crazy. I promised you I wasn't gonna let your brother die."

Sam jerked his arm free, weariness condensing and curdling inside of him until it quickly fermented into anger. "What do you want, a medal?" He snapped.

Dean pulled up short, his eyes darting to Sam's with a look of surprise and appreciation.

"You think I'm excited about riding into a goddamn hornets' nest with my brother just this side of conscious?" Sam continued, the headache that had crept up on him earlier making itself home behind his eyes.

"Hey!" Dean protested softly.

"We're trying to keep you from getting killed, man," Sam snarled, pushing away from the wall and facing down the saloon owner, finding the man's equal height slightly imposing. "None of this was supposed to happen. We can't risk—"

"Who the hell do you think you are?" Zeke interrupted, drawing Stella's curious eyes. Sam frowned and Zeke dropped his tone. "I don't remember asking you two to protect me. I'm a grown man; I can decide for myself whose play to back, what battle to fight."

"You don't get it," Dean spoke up, moving to stand next to Sam, his slightly-bowed stance pulling their attention. "That's not just your average bad guy, looking to take over the town."

"I'm starting to work that part out," Zeke replied.

"He's…It's…the kind of thing me and my brother deal with every day," Dean continued.

"Well," Sam half-turned to Dean. "We haven't exactly dealt with a demon like this before, Dean."

Dean arched an eyebrow at him. "You're gonna get particular on me now?"

Sam raised a hand. "I see your point."

"I don't care what he—or it—is," Zeke declared. "You two got me into this mess with your whole…falling from the sky…traveling through time…wounds that won't heal business. I don't know what people are like where you come from," he pulled himself straight, his mouth set in a grim line, "but 'round here? We don't just leave friends to twist in the wind."

Sam blinked. He glanced over at Dean and saw his brother lift his chin a bit. Friends….

"So, if we're done with this little side-bar, I say we get Sam a gun, head to Ivers' ranch, see what we see."

"Not much of a plan," Sam grumbled, pinching the bridge of his nose. His headache had receded somewhat, but hadn't escaped completely. "Get guns. Ride in. Hope for the best."

"I don't think we have much choice, Sam," Dean said, his voice slightly hollow.

Sam stared at him, willing Dean to look up, needing to see that his fear was unfounded. That he was wrong. That Dean was okay. Dean's eyes stayed stubbornly downcast and Sam watched a muscle work along his brother's jaw as if it were a live thing.

With one final glance at them, Zeke nodded as if punctuating the end of his decision, then turned and headed back to the bar. The brothers followed in quiet unison.

"We've got some work to do," Zeke said to Stella. "You think you can handle things here?"

Stella's lips curled upwards. "I've got Big Bob to help, and Frost tickling the Ivories," she said. "I'm good as long as Ivers doesn't come back."

"Too bad Larabee couldn't stay," Sam sighed. "Help you out a little, Stella."

Stella glanced down at the glass in her hand she was wiping down, an eyebrow arching. "Oh, I have a feeling Mr. Larabee might've been more of a…distraction…than a help."

"Hey, now," Zeke protested mildly.

"Off with you," Stella nodded toward the door. "Don't play nice with the outlaws."

Zeke kissed the air in her direction as he backed away from the bar, leading the brothers out of the saloon. They headed to the Livery, Sam peering into the darkness of the barn from the brightness of the moonlit night. He was startled to find himself coming face-to-face with Zeke's horse, Hooker.

"What the—" Zeke started, his voice laden with surprise.

"You have to promise me something," Bird said, appearing next to the big horse's shoulder.

"Bird?" Dean stepped forward and rested his hand on her shoulder.

"Sam said you had to find that guy," Bird said, her large gray eyes shifting from Dean to Sam and back. "Frost said he's at Ivers' place. So, I know you're going to ride out there."

Dean looked at Sam, then Zeke. Sam felt the heaviness in that glance roll from his brother and settle in around his own heart. This was getting too big, too complicated. It was starting to be about more than just getting home. It was starting to be about people.

It was a weight Sam wasn't sure they were equipped to carry.

"I got the horses all ready for you, but you have to promise me something."

"What?" Dean crouched down so that his face was level with hers. Sam saw a shimmer of pain radiate up through his jaw line.

"You gotta get my family out of there."

"Aw, kid," Dean sighed, shaking his head sadly. "If we can, we will."

"No." Bird stepped back, out of Dean's grasp. "You gotta promise. I know you ain't an angel…but if you promise, I'll believe you."

"Bird," Zeke stepped in, taking Hooker's reins from her. "You know we don't want anything bad to happen to your mom and brother."

"It don't matter what you want," Bird snapped. "It matters what you're gonna do. And if you say you're gonna save them, I know you'll do it."

She looked directly at Dean, her gray eyes wide. "I saved you," she said softly. "You fell from the sky and I saved you. Please," she swallowed hard, "promise me."

Sam looked at his brother, waiting. He already knew Dean's answer.

"I promise, Bird," Dean said. "We won't…we won't go home until we get your family out."

Bird took a breath. "Okay," she nodded. "Sentenza's here. He's got the other two horses."

Backing up, she made way for the small, mute Mexican to lead two other horses into the paddock area.

"Where'd the other horse come from?" Sam asked, eyeing the gray mare as she danced a bit in the opening, the silvery light from the moon giving her a ghostly, ethereal look.

Bird shrugged. "We, uh…borrowed it," she said, sharing a quick glance with Sentenza. "Frost is in there playing the piano." She gestured toward the saloon with a tip of her chin. "We would've asked, but…I didn't think Zeke would like it if I came into the saloon."

Zeke arched a brow. "Convenient."

"Hey, Sam," Dean chuckled softly. "You want to ride Little Joe's horse?"

Sam looked over at the black and white Paint.

"Who's Little Joe?" Zeke asked.

"This horse don't belong to no one," Bird frowned.

"Forget it," Sam shook his head. "And I'll take anything over that mare."

"She looks like a ghost horse," Dean observed, running a hand along the mare's neck. "Kinda fitting, huh?"

"Yeah, she's freakin' awesome," Sam grumbled, backing up a step as the mare blew at him through her nostrils, shying to one side of Sentenza.

Needing the reminder, Sam watched as Zeke shoved his left foot in the stirrup of Hooker's saddle, gripped the mane and reins in one hand, and then swung his leg across the horse's back. Zeke looked down at Bird in appreciation. Sam saw Sentenza sign something to the girl.

"He said he borrowed a rifle from Frost," Bird informed them, pointing to the little paint. "Put it on that one."

"There's a Winchester rifle in the scabbard on your saddle, Sam," he said. "You know how to use one of those?"

Sam couldn't help it. He chuckled, meeting his brother's amused expression. "I can handle a Winchester," he replied.

"Great," Zeke said, turning Hooker in a tight circle. The war-vet of a horse seemed to sense they were going into battle. He tossed his head, jingling the bit in his mouth, and danced in place. "This one's rarin' to go."

Sam took a breath, then swung up onto the back of the Paint. "Easy, Joe," he said softly, patting the smaller horse's neck. He looked over and saw Dean sitting on the mare, his eyes closed, his hand pressed against his side. The mare stood perfectly still. "You gonna make it?"

Dean opened his eyes and Sam saw resolve shining from his eyes, his skin milk-pale in the moonlight. "You bet your ass, I'll make it."

Looking at Zeke, Sam felt compelled to give the man one last chance to get out before it got too messy. "You really sure you're up for this?"

Zeke frowned. "You're friends, Sam. I'm not letting you go into this fight alone."

"But…you don't really even know us," Sam pointed out.

"You're friends," Zeke repeated, with a tired roll of his eyes. "Why are we still talking about this?"

Sam took a breath, deciding to let it go. Zeke was right: he was a grown man, capable of making his own choices. He thought of Leo. He hadn't known the man more than a day, but allowing him to be buried in some Potter's Field in Nowhere, Texas, just hadn't felt right. For a brief moment, sitting in the back of their car, Leo had needed a friend.

He nodded at the former doctor, then gathered the reins in one hand, gripping the saddle horn with the other. He wasn't ready for this. Once again they were going after Jake, walking—well, riding—into the unknown with the barest hint of a plan. And once again, they didn't have much of a choice. He followed the other man's motions, digging his heels into the flanks of the black and white horse. It was easy to keep Dean between them: the mare was simply faster than his Paint.

As they passed the Mission, Zeke pulled up to a brisk walk, dropping back next to the brothers.

"Anything happens and we get split up? Meet back here at the Mission."

Dean nodded tersely. He was bent slightly forward, but Sam didn't have time to worry. He watched as Zeke kicked Hooker back into a run, wanting for one brief moment to whimper aloud. He was winded and sweaty. His legs were tired and the skin on the inside of his knees was starting to chafe against the hard leather of the saddle. He ass was protesting the pounding.

But then he looked over at Dean, took in the pain he saw in just that glance, and watched as his brother kicked the mare into a run behind Hooker, and he knew that if Dean wasn't giving up, then he was going to make it. He had to.

Keeping his eyes on Dean, Sam saw how his brother seemed to naturally absorb the motion of the horse with his legs, rocking forward in time with the movement of the horse's gait, then tucking his hips in to scoop deep into the saddle. It was an oddly familiar rhythm; Dean's body seemed to roll in time with the horse's stride. It took Sam a moment to place where he'd seen that cadence before; when it hit him, he blushed. It was the same motion one often used in sex. Once he figured that out, he found that riding the horse became much easier.

Just as he felt he was too winded to keep the pretense up, Sam saw Zeke pull up short near an outcrop of pale stone at the crest of a hill. Dean followed and soon they were all three tucked behind the rock. The moon offered them a pseudo-spotlight as they looked down the hill to the buildings below.

"That's the start of Ivers' spread there," Zeke pointed down toward a large corral full of horses. "Just there, that's the bunkhouse. And up the slope a ways is the main house."

"What's the plan?" Sam panted.

Dean licked his lips. His color was starting to look worse, if that was possible, and he was holding his side, hunched over. "You think Jake's at the bunkhouse?"

Zeke shrugged. "Unless he went up to the main house to tell Ivers about Ramirez."

Sam looked at his brother, nodded. They had to split up.

"Sam and me'll take the bunkhouse," Dean declared. "Zeke, you head up to the house. The plan is to find Jake. We'll worry about the rest later."

"What about Bird's family?" Zeke asked.

"If you can get them out without trouble," Dean nodded, "but we may just have to come back."

"You thinking we need more people?" Sam asked.

"I'm thinking we need a friggin' army," Dean returned. "You see how many horses he's got down there? If he even has half that amount in men, we're in trouble."

"I don't think Jake's gonna come willingly," Zeke pointed out. "He couldn't get out of the saloon fast enough."

Dean pulled his Colt revolver free. "He'll come if we make him."

Zeke frowned, getting a good look at the weapon in Dean's hand for the first time. "Where'd you get that?"

"Bird," Dean replied, rolling the cylinder along his forearm and peering at the loaded chambers. "Said it belonged to her dad."

"It did," Zeke nodded. "I got it for him. Tom O'Maera was a good man," he looked down at Ivers' spread. "He didn't deserve to die like that."

Dean frowned. "What did you say his name was?"

"I thought the same thing," Sam replied softly.

"What? Thought what? Why do I always feel like I walked into the middle of a conversation with you two?"

Dean huffed out a small laugh. "We've just…spent a lot of time together," he said. "Sulfur Springs isn't called Sulfur Springs in our time."

Zeke looked back at Sam as if for confirmation. "What's it called?"

Sam sighed, once more giving in to the inevitable. "Maera."

"As in… O'Maera," Zeke replied.

"Seems like it," Sam nodded.

"Named after Tom you think?" Zeke frowned.

"I don't know," Dean shook his head. "And before you get all space-time continuum on me, Sam, Bird's dad died like three weeks before we even got here, so if it was supposed to be named after him, we had nothing to do with it."

"I wasn't gonna say anything," Sam protested, raising his hands, then quickly re-gripping the saddle horn as Joe shifted beneath him.

"Uh-huh," Dean muttered.

Zeke took a breath. "Okay, boys," he said. "Quick and quiet. The moon is not our friend tonight."

Sam nodded, seeing Dean do the same out of the corner of his eyes. If they could see the ranch with relative ease this deep in the night, then sharp eyes would be able to spot their approach via the same illumination.

"We'll meet back here in an hour, or at the Mission at dawn," Zeke told him, not bothering to mention a third alternative.

Dean looked at the saloon owner. "Good luck."

"You, too."

And with that, they parted, the brothers riding down the hill in one direction, Zeke in another. Sam couldn't help but feel like they were riding away from the frying pan and into the fire.

As they approached the backside of the bunkhouse, Dean pulled the mare up, slowing her and edging toward a small cluster of trees on the bank of a dry riverbed that dug a deep groove into the earth along the back of the building. Sam watched as his brother slid from the saddle, hanging on to the tough leather for a moment as he caught his breath.

"You okay?" Sam whispered.

"Peachy," Dean gasped out. "Head's killing me."

"Just your head?"

"You want me to paint a picture for you, Sam?"

"Sorry." Sam dismounted, surprised that he, too, had to hold onto the saddle for a moment. His feet had fallen asleep and he stomped in place to get rid of the feeling of pins and needles. "I don't know why people actually pay to do this back home."

"They're masochists," Dean muttered.

"You looked like you were enjoying it," Sam whispered, ducking under the neck of his horse to come around to Dean's side.

The black hat Dean had been wearing was off, hanging down his back from stampede strings. His brother had his face buried in the mare's sweaty neck and his fingers fisted in her tangled mane.

"I was enjoying the fact that I was moving at all," Dean confessed, turning his head to face Sam. "Something's…something's wrong, Sam."

"All of this is wrong," Sam muttered stepping forward.

Dean shook his head, his short hair tangling slightly with the mare's black dreadlocks. "No…it's me. I can feel it," he said softly, reluctantly. "Inside. There's like a…a hole. And I'm falling in."

Sam took a step closer. Licking his suddenly dry lips, Sam reached out, gripping Dean's arm, dismayed at the tremble he felt there. Promises of care that always came so easily to Dean slipped across Sam's tongue too fast for him to grasp. He wanted to tell Dean he wouldn't let him fall. He wanted to tell him they were going to make it.

He wanted to believe it.

"We gotta get this guy," Dean said in a desperate, shaky whisper. "And get the hell outta here."

Dean's eyes seemed to be emptying as he stared at him and Sam felt his heart clench, tight in his chest. He had to force himself to take a breath.

"You're gonna be okay," Sam said, needing to say the words as much as he needed Dean to hear them. "We're gonna get out of this."

Dean's eyes latched onto his and Sam felt his brother drawing power from that connection, working to be strong enough, tough enough. After a moment, he nodded. "Well, I sure as hell am not gonna let some Judd Nelson wannabe beat us."

"You hate Judd Nelson," Sam commented.

"Exactly," Dean pointed at him, pulling away from the horse and standing on his own.

"What do we do with them?"

Dean frowned. "Leave them here…drop the reins on the ground. That's what they always do in the movies."

"Won't they run off?" Sam asked.

"Well, if they do, there's more over there," Dean said. "Let's go. Grab your Winchester."

"Grab my wha—oh," Sam said, frowning at the mischievous smirk on his brother's pale face.

He pulled the rifle from the scabbard and followed Dean along the river bed that ran between the trees and up to the rear of the bunkhouse. Once there, they put their backs to the rough-hewn wall. Dean ticked off a three-count with his free hand, then ducked his head around the side wall of the bunkhouse. Sam felt his stomach drop as his brother suddenly froze, straightened, then stepped out into the open.

"What the hell are you doing here, boy?" growled a liquor-heavy voice.

Sam could only see his brother in shadowed profile, but noted the squaring of his shoulders as he was challenged by the unexpected stranger. He brought his rifle up just as he saw Dean's hand held out to him, palm up, telling him to wait….

"I'm, uh…looking for a friend of mine," Dean said, holding his gun up, away from the person confronting him.

"Think you're looking in the wrong place," the man said, and Sam heard the roll-click of a revolver.

"Mister, you know what a Winchester rifle can do in the hands of someone who knows how to use it?" Dean asked, calmly.

"I don't see no Winchester," the man snarled.

Dean dropped his hand and Sam slid around the corner, positioned behind and to the right of his brother, the rifle up on his shoulder pointing directly at the heavy-set man.

"You do now," Dean said.

The man lowered his weapon, beady eyes bouncing between the brothers. "You want to look for your friend? You got five minutes."

With that, he stumbled off to the side, his loud belch announcing their presence.

"Nice move, Sam," Dean said with an appreciative nod. Sam smiled, lowering the rifle.

Dean took a step forward, then suddenly swayed.

"Shit," Sam cursed, grabbing Dean's arm, feeling his brother shift his weight first toward Sam, then away in an attempt to regain control.

"'M okay," Dean shrugged him off. "Leggo."

Sam pressed his lips together as Dean's words slurred, but propelled them both into the bunkhouse, coming face-to-face with several weapons raised in instinctive, automatic reaction to their sudden entrance.

"Jake!" Sam called, looking around at the strange faces around him. "Jake Brand!"

"He ain't in here," said a young-sounding voice.

The brothers turned and saw a dark-haired boy of about thirteen sitting on a top bunk, holding an ancient-looking Colt. The boy released the hammer on the weapon, lowering it, but kept his eyes on them.

"He's up at the house."

Sam heard several clicks as the hammers from other weapons were released. He glanced around quickly, unable to see many faces, only the blurred motion of bodies shifting as they lay back down in their bunks, soft grumbles at being awoke providing a muffled backdrop to the their exchange with the boy.

"You Bird O'Maera's brother?" Dean asked.

Sam shot a surprised look at his brother, then narrowed his focus on the kid.

The kid frowned. "Rory," he nodded. "How'd you know?"

"You got her eyes, kid," Dean said, his voice barely audible.

"She's okay?" Rory asked, relief palpable in his tone.

"She's fine," Sam assured him. "She just wants you back. Come with us."

Rory shook his head. "Ivers has my Mama up at the house. I ain't leavin' until she does."

"We'll get your mom, too," Sam said. "Just—"

The explosion of gunfire from behind them had the brothers ducking instinctively, Dean stumbling against the door. Sam looked frantically over his shoulder as the heavy-set man who'd stopped them before stood on the wide, wrap-around porch of the main house, pistol firing in the air. He bellowed something indiscernible to Sam, but that the men in the bunkhouse seemed to recognize.

"What is it?" Sam yelled to Rory.

"Get the hell outta here," Rory yelled. "Go back and take care of Bird!"

Sam grabbed Dean's arm and propelled them from the door of the bunkhouse to the only place he could think of that would be safe from the myriad of guns that suddenly surrounded them: the corral of horses.

"Climb the fence, Dean!" Sam ordered, pushing his sluggish brother up the log fence.

Dean dropped to the ground on the other side, dangerously near the nervous hooves of several horses. Sam clambered down next to him, tucking the rifle under one arm and pulling Dean to his feet. His brother was visibly shaking and Sam saw his right hand was sticky with blood. With a sickening twist of his gut, he realized Dean's wound had reopened and the fever he'd been fighting all night was getting more than just a toe-hold on Dean's consciousness.

"C'mon," Sam pulled him into the suffocating throng of milling horses.

"What about Rory?" Dean said, doing his best to shove the nervous animals away from them, leaving smeared, bloody hand prints on their sides and shoulders that looked black in the moonlight.

"He'll be fine," Sam replied tersely. "Has been so far."

"We gotta help 'im," Dean slurred.

"We will, Dean," Sam assured him. "We gotta get outta here, first."

Another shout brought Sam's head up and around. People were pouring out of Ivers' house. He didn't see Jake or Zeke in the mix, but he did see a lot of weapons. Pushing forward through the horses, gripping Dean's arm, Sam thought furiously about what to do next.

"Sam," Dean said, his voice breathless.

Sam looked over at his brother, alarmed by Dean's hooded eyes. Ignoring Dean's weak protests, he bent low, slinging Dean's arm over his shoulder. He felt his brother's weight shift against him.

Jesus, he's burning up.

"Sam," Dean tried again.

"Shut up, man," Sam snarled. "I'm getting us out of here."

"The horses," Dean said.

Sam looked at him, confused. "What about them?"

"Stampede."

Sam looked around and saw that the opening to the corral faced the house. "Good thinking."

"Just…get us out of the way…first," Dean suggested, working to keep his legs under him.

"Right," Sam nodded, moving to the gate and releasing the latch. Dodging the heavy bodies of the increasingly agitated horses, he tucked both of them up against a thick support post, then looked down at Dean. "Ready?"

Dean pulled his weapon and nodded. Raising the barrels of their weapons skyward, they each fired off a round. That was all it took for several of the horses to utter high-pitched, terrified whinnies and charge the gate, pushing it open with their bodies and spilling in a flood of equestrian mass out around the main house, across the wide porch, churning Earth and men and weapons beneath their powerful, pounding hooves.

Continued in Part 6B here: http://gaelicspirit.livejournal.com/83982.html 




Comments

( 4 Tall Tales — Tell Me A Story )
simplycolourful
Jun. 7th, 2010 01:42 pm (UTC)
I just handed my final exam project in today, so this is a nice way to spend my afternoon :)

I'm worried about Dean being sick, but unless you're going completely AU, I'm sure he's going to be okay :)
gaelicspirit
Jun. 8th, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC)
He'll always be okay. :) I mean, after I hurt him a bunch, first. :)

Thank you for reading -- and CONGRATS on handing in the final exam project! Whee-hooo!!
saberivojo
Jul. 13th, 2010 02:46 am (UTC)
It took Sam a moment to place where he'd seen that cadence before; when it hit him, he blushed. It was the same motion one often used in sex.

I had not thought of that before. *ponders riding vs sex*

I'm worried about Dean. I also don't like the thought of getting run over by horses.

Eeek.
gaelicspirit
Jul. 14th, 2010 02:13 pm (UTC)
I think getting run over by horses would be a terrible way to die. And Dean...gets better. Eventually. I promise.

As for the riding vs sex thing...it was something that helped me keep my seat. Not sure if it's true of how everyone rides, though. *laughs*
( 4 Tall Tales — Tell Me A Story )

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